FBI's 9/11 Team Still Hard at Work
In another case, the PENTTBOM investigators pieced together the identity of Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a suspected al Qaeda member and trained pilot who remains at large, from information provided by detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison and elsewhere. Last month, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft renewed calls for public help in finding Shukrijumah, saying: "He has been involved in terrorist planning with senior al Qaeda leaders overseas and has scouted sites across America that might be vulnerable to terrorist attack."
In the first retrospective look at the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, released publicly last summer, House and Senate intelligence committee investigators concluded that the team had not worked aggressively enough to investigate some strands of the plot, particularly in connection with a small group of immigrants associated with two of the hijackers in San Diego.
In its scathing report, the joint inquiry argued that intelligence sources and the FBI's own investigation had revealed contacts between the lead hijackers and at least 14 suspected terrorist associates in San Diego and elsewhere in the United States -- including several whom the FBI was monitoring at the time of the contacts.
The FBI has staunchly disputed the committee's claims, arguing that the 14 individuals referred to in the report have been cleared of terrorist connections and, in many cases, were several steps removed from contact with any of the hijackers. But Eleanor Hill, the inquiry's staff director, said in a recent interview that she was taken back by what she viewed as the team's lack of thoroughness.
"We didn't feel they knew a lot about issues we were pretty concerned about," she said. "I know they worked very hard, and there were a lot of FBI agents working very hard after 9/11, but part of my view was that they were playing catch up. . . . I still think there were several issues we came across that we felt should have been handled more aggressively."
Hill and others criticize, in part, the organization of the investigation itself, which featured a constantly revolving cast of agents on temporary assignments. The tumult may have made it difficult to keep up with the sheer volume of material collected during the probe, she and others argue.
"They clearly had their hands full," Hill said. "I think they were overwhelmed after 9/11 just in the scope of what they had to look at."
The independent commission investigating the attacks, whose own investigators have gone over much of the same ground as the FBI, is largely impressed with the PENTTBOM team's work, said the panel's executive director, Philip D. Zelikow. But the commission investigators disagree with the bureau on a number of key points, which will become evident when the panel releases its report.
"Overall, PENTTBOM displayed all of the FBI's characteristic strengths," Zelikow said. "They are a superb investigative organization, with a culture that very much respects facts and values hard evidence. . . . But there are things that they didn't check out as aggressively as we might have liked. . . . and they have not always been as creative as they could have been."
Like the families of attack victims, the PENTTBOM investigators agonize over questions they cannot answer. "Two and a half years later, when there's still questions out there, of course that is frustrating," Maguire said.
On a bracing day in early January, Galligan is joined by Michael E. Rolince, a longtime senior FBI counterterrorism official, for a question-and-answer session in an FBI auditorium. The audience members are relatives of those killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. A reporter was allowed to observe part of the gathering, but was barred from taking notes.
Galligan and Rolince walked the families through much of what is known about the events aboard Flight 77 that day. They discussed the plane's trajectory as it crashed; the response of emergency vehicles and fighter jets; and what was known about their loved ones' last minutes aboard the jetliner.
The team's role as a liaison of sorts to victims' relatives has gone largely unnoticed. Galligan and others have briefed the families, members of Congress and their staffs and investigators for the House-Senate inquiry and the independent commission investigating the attacks.
The FBI and the PENTTBOM team set up a secure Web site and telephone number to provide information to loved ones about the case. The bureau began a program last fall to return belongings that had been held as potential evidence, from identification tags to jewelry.
One man from the Midwest brought the FBI an answering machine tape of his son's last words, which he hoped could be restored; FBI technicians were unable to rescue the recording. On another day, members of the PENTTBOM team aired a security tape from Dulles International Airport for a woman whose husband was killed in the Pentagon crash. The grainy footage showed the man walking down a corridor, minutes after she had dropped him off to board the plane.
"When she saw him, she reached out to touch the screen and just held her hand there," FBI agent Jane Rhodes said. "There wasn't a dry eye in the house."
"A lot of these contacts with families are very intense, very personal," said Kathryn Turman, the FBI's victim representative. "They come to us. We try to get the answers for them as much as possible. . . . The message I try to get across to victims is: Life will never be the same again, but it can be good again."
The families' thirst for details is undiminished nearly three years after the attacks. Mueller said the PENTTBOM investigation will continue as long as there are leads to pursue.
"There is still information coming in," Galligan said, "and we still have so many unanswered questions."
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